What’s in a name?

Percival Everett’s abecedarian set of poems Zulus from his book re: f(gesture) comments on the importance of naming children. On two separate occasions, the speaker states, “Always name offspring” (Everett 20, 28). Zulus makes a statement on the power of names, and their necessity in forming identities; it highlights the tragedy that can occur when a name–the first gateway into identity–is carelessly left blank.

The cautionary phrase is first evoked in the “F” section of Zulus: “F is for Frankenstein, / who did not name his baby. / Always name offspring” (20). I have actually just read the romantic novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in my Nature of Inquiry class, and the speaker’s statement could not be more accurate. Many people think (myself included until I read the novel) that “Frankenstein” is the name of the re-animated monster in the story, mainly because modern-day media often portrays it as such. In actuality, Frankenstein is really the last name of the scientist who creates the monster, Victor Frankenstein. In the original novel, the monster is nameless, generally referred to as the “creature.”

In Frankenstein, one of the central issues is Victor’s abandonment of the monster he creates–”his baby” (20). Victor’s failure to give his creature an actual name is indicative of their entire relationship. The monster is not inherently evil; the majority of the harm he causes is in response to Victor’s “bad parenting” and his complete lack of guidance. In this case, you should “Always name offspring” because a name gives a sense of belonging–a feeling the creature never has, and he ultimately ends up a killer because of it (20).

The second time the speaker uses the phrase is in the “N” section of the poem: “that frightening revelation… / “the number of his name.” / Always name offspring” (28). In the Revelations section of the Bible, the phrase “the number of his name” is mentioned in 13:17– “so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.” The next verse, 13:18, continues: “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.” “The number of his name,” then, most likely refers to 666, the number of the devil–or the antichrist–who will ultimately bring on the apocalypse at the end of the world.

Once again, there is a lack of actual name mentioned; it is simply a number assigned to “the beast.” One might draw parallels between the way the devil is referred to and the way “the creature” is referred to in Frankenstein. In both instances, the effect, at least according to the speaker in the poem, is disaster and death. Frankenstein’s monster goes on a killing spree, and “the beast” destroys life on earth as we know it.

Considering this emphasis on lack of names, I began to think about how Everett addresses the topic of naming in the other books we have read for this class. The opening line of Frenzy immediately came to mind: “Dionysos was Bakkhos was Iakkhos was Bromius was Dithyrambos was Evius” (Everett 1). This is quite the opposite of what we see in Zulus; instead of lack of names, there is an abundance of them assigned to one individual. While the lack of names indexes as an absence of identity and connection, Dionysos’ many names translates into an almost “super” identity; his multitude of names makes him seem powerful and well-known. When Everett introduces the character in such a way, the reader can already begin to formulate an idea of the power Dionysos might hold and the infamy of this figure. In all these cases, however, there is an observable connection between the character’s actions and his name.

This lead me to another example of naming in Everett’s work. In I Am Not Sidney Poitier, one of the struggles Not Sidney repeatedly goes through is the fact that his name is “Not Sidney Poitier.” Confusion around his name would cause others to think he was “petulant” and “wearisome” (Everett 14). As a child, this would often end in him getting punched in the face. As he grows older, he tires of constantly having to explain his name, and at one point begins to introduce himself differently. When he first meets the nuns in the novel, he says, “‘My name is Poitier'” (171). I found Not Sidney’s decision to refer to himself in this way as extremely important. In my opinion, the novel as a whole is a story of loss of identity. The novel closes with Not Sidney stating, “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” (234). In the end, Not Sidney assumes the identity of Sidney Poitier. I think the way in which Not Sidney chooses to refer to himself is an essential aspect of that transformation. Just as lack of name or abundance of name index level of power and connection, changing a name indexes agency and a shift in how one views oneself. After examining all of this, I feel I have come to recognize more fully the power of names and the ways in which they impact identities, for better or for worse.

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